Sean Deskin, New Orleans local and harmonica player, drops some knowledge about the harmonicas that give you the best bang for your buck! He also hosts a podcast on this siteNOLA Rockin’ Chair

    If you’re a diatonic harmonica player out to purchase a new harmonica, you’ve noticed that there are many different manufacturers offering a variety of models. And if you’re a novice to a professional player, chances are you’ve done some research and have a few different models in your collection. You could also even tell me which ones are your favorites and why. 

I’m always keen on listening to someone describe what harmonicas work best for them because I’m always looking for great harmonicas to play. And if you’re trying to decide which harmonica to try or buy next, this may help you. I’ve written this piece to describe and compare what harmonicas work best for me.

A set of Hohner Marine Band harmonicas covering 5 keys

    I am currently putting in a lot of studio time in on my band’s new album. I also play a couple of gigs a week as well. Ergo, I need to make sure my rig is performing at its peak.  This, of course, comes with a price tag. A harmonica player usually needs a harmonica for almost every key, and you should also have backups if a harp fails you—all that starts to add up. I primarily play the diatonic harmonica (see diagram one).

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts in such a little instrument! So it is fairly common that a reed in a harmonica gets damaged from a number of reasons. And so, the harp will have to be worked on or have to be replaced, costing time/money. The photo below is a generic representation of a diatonic harmonica. There are many harmonica manufacturers offering diatonic models with components made from a variety of materials and feature a broad range of manufacturing processing. You’ll also notice a wide range of pricing for different diatonic harmonicas.

Detailed Harmonica diagram by
Diagram 1                            Photo credit:

I will be describing and comparing the following models that I regularly play:

Hohner’s Special 20

Hohner’s Marine Band

Seydel’s Session Steel

Tombo’s Lee Oskar

Keep in mind that we will deal with the models in the key of C Major, but if you follow the links, you can pick different keys, or even entire sets of harmonicas.

1. Hohner Special 20

The Hohner Special 20’s reeds, rivets, reedplates, and fasteners are all made from brass, the cover plates are stainless steel, and  the comb is plastic. I’ve been playing this animal for years and it is my main workhorse, mainly for the playability that you get for the price ( around $40). They’re also pretty easy to open up and clean or work on. The plastic comb ensures for smooth playing across the instrument during fast passages.

2. Hohner Marine Band

Hohner’s Marine Band has been in production since 1896 and is the instrument of choice for many blues harp players. It features brass reeds, rivets, reedplates, and fasteners, stainless steel covers, and a pearwood comb. The base model retails for around $47, but you may want to consider upgrading to one of their Crossover ($63) or Deluxe ($75) models in the series. The Crossover and Deluxe feature more workmanship during the manufacturing process and a few more upgrades like bolts, instead of nails, which allows for easier maintenance.

3. Seydel Session Steel

Seydel’s Session Steel harmonicas are different because they feature a lot of stainless steel parts: reeds, rivets, reedplates, and fasteners. Not only do they last longer than brass reed harmonicas, they are also stronger, which makes for an instrument that stays in tune longer. They retail for about $60 a piece. Overall, the tone, playability, and the instrument’s longevity make the Seydel Session Steel an excellent bargain in its price range.

4. Lee Oskar

Lee Oskar Harmonicas are similar to the Hohner Special 20 because they also feature brass reeds, rivets, and reedplates; stainless steel cover plates; and plastic comb too. However, they are slightly larger than Special 20’s, looking and sounding distinctively different. For around $44, Lee Oskars are available in all keys in the following tunings: major diatonic, a “Melody Maker” tuning (suitable for country styles), natural minor, and harmonic minor.

    With my budget in mind, and in consideration of my playing schedule, every other month I typically end up purchasing Hohner’s Special 20 two or three at a time to save on shipping.  I must point out that I really, really like Seydel’s Session Steel, but they are just a bit too pricey for me with the way that I run through harps. Keep in mind I’ve only covered four types of diatonic harmonicas from a market that is teeming with manufacturers. However, I feel that I’ve represented some of the most significant makes currently available. I hope that this article helps you in your pursuit to find the right harmonica.

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